The AFC North is one of the best divisions in football and has plenty of Fantasy talent to utilize in 2013. Let dive into some of the statistical standouts ...
Trent will be T-Rich with Fantasy points in Norv Turner's offense
Despite missing training camp following surgery and playing with a broken rib for the majority of his rookie season, Trent Richardson still managed to run for 950 yard and 11 touchdowns while catching another 51 passes for 367 yards and a score. He finished out the year as the ninth-ranked Fantasy back and much bigger things are in store for 2013.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner knows a thing or two about producing productive running backs (not named Ryan Mathews), as many of you will remember LaDainain Tomlinson's dominant Fantasy run in San Diego. Five times Norv's runner has led the NFL in rushing and while I don't expect T-Rich to do that this year, he will have his first 1,000-yard season quite easily. Turner has told me he wants 300 carries and 60 catches for Richardson, who he called "the most important player on our offense." At that kind of workload and the expected increased efficiency in terms of yards per carry and catch from a fully healthy Richardson and the sky is the limit for him this year.
T-Rich has dropped five pounds and is down to his playing weight at Alabama and said he has not felt this healthy in years. At Browns training camp, Richardson has been noticeably quicker and has more burst than he did last year. With the Browns utilizing more of an attacking spread offense this season than they did last year, Richardson should have more running room and be better positioned for big gains in the passing game. Richardson proved that he is a great short-yardage back, punching in five of his 12 goal line carries (fifth best out of the 15 backs with 10 or more carries) and boasting an impressive 21.4 percent red zone touchdown rate, which was third best among the 30 busiest backs last year.
With an increased workload, better health and a proven effective offensive scheme, look for a breakout year from Richardson in 2013. He is worth a pick in the Top 5 this year and has as good a chance as any of the backs after Adrian Peterson to finish at the top when it is all said and done. A lot of people are sleeping on this Browns offense and if you can snag T-Rich on the back half of the first round, you will be very happy with his production in Year 2.
Can they carry their respective passing games and provide good Fantasy production? Not sure about the former, but they definitely will with regards to the latter
Torrey Smith: With Anquan Boldin gone and Dennis Pitta injured, Smith will far and away be the top target for Joe Flacco and the Ravens in 2013. He will see a major jump in his targets and if he can become a better intermediate route runner we could have a major breakout star on our hands. I would expect that Smith will pick up at least 10 percent of the 205 targets that went the way of Boldin and Pitta last year, so no doubt the table is set for a career year.
Just taking his 2012 efficiency numbers of a 44.5 percent catch rate, 7.8 yards and 1.2 points per target, a bump of 20 targets would have had the following impact. Smith would have seen 130 targets (tied for 18th among all receivers) and produced 58 receptions for 1,010 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 157 Fantasy points would have placed Smith in the Top 15 at receiver. Smith is entering his third season and has been working extensively to improve his catch rate and his intermediate route game. If he can increase his efficiency and decrease his reliance on the deep ball, Smith has the potential to become a dominant Fantasy performer. After all, in 2012 he averaged 18.6 air yards per target, highest in the NFL among receivers with at least 40 targets. That was a major reason why Smith battled inconsistency and had such a low catch rate in 2012; he lacked the diversity in his route tree to become a dominant receiver week in and week out.
Smith will definitely see an increase in his targets and will take on more of the intermediate routes that should increase his consistency and his efficiency. It should also be mentioned that for his career, Smith averaged 14.2 points per game when he sees at least 10 targets in a game. In those five games, he has failed to produce 10 points only once, so he does thrive on a bigger target volume. Smith has also produced a touchdown rate over 7.4 percent in each of his first two seasons -- which is Top 10 in the league -- so he will once again be a solid scorer.
Everything is in place for a breakout year from Smith, but the only concern comes from the fact that he will be the focus of every opposing pass defense he faces in 2013. Smith is best grabbed as a top No. 3 receiver (which is possible with his ADP as 23rd receiver taken), where the potential risk of inconsistency and increased defensive focus is already built in. At that spot, Smith offers Top 12 potential with very little downside and with his vertical playmaking he can win some weeks for you (four of his six weeks in the Top 24 last year saw Smith finish in the Top 12), which is all you can ask for out of your No. 3.
Antonio Brown: Mike Wallace was miscast in the Todd Haley short passing attack, but Brown is a perfect fit for it. Brown is a fearless receiver for his size who possesses solid hands (62.3 percent catch rate last year) and has great run-after-the-catch ability as he ranked in the Top 16 in terms of both yards after the catch and yards after the catch per reception last year (among those playing 600 snaps).
With Wallace gone via free agency, Brown is the unquestioned top target for quarterback Ben Roethlisbeger in 2013 and it is likely he could see close to 10 targets per game. With great hands and high target volume, Brown could approach 80 receptions this year (he had 63 in 13 games a year ago), which means he will likely return to the 1,000-plus yard mark he reached in 2011. Those are both reasons to be excited about Brown this year, but this final stat is perhaps the most telling. After starting his career with just two scores on his first 148 targets, Brown found the end zone five times on 106 targets last year. He scored in three of his final four games and seemed to become a dependable red zone receiver despite his smallish frame. Brown converted four of his team high nine red zone targets into scores last year and is a good bet to hit at least six scores again this year with Wallace gone and tight end Heath Miller (team leader with 20 red zone targets last year) injured.
Brown is guaranteed to see an increase in targets for 2013 and if his yards per catch normalizes somewhere between the 16.1 he had in 2011 and the 11.9 he had last year, Brown will be a solid yardage producer week in and week out. I love the touchdown trend that developed at the end of the 2012 season, which is why I am expecting a career year from Brown, who makes for a solid No. 2 receiver with enhanced PPR value.
Josh Gordon had a very impressive rookie season, catching 50 passes for 805 yards and six scores for the Browns. He averaged a solid 8.5 yards and 1.16 Fantasy points per target despite being out of football in 2011, and I think big things are in store for him in 2013.
Looking at the raw data a few things jump out at you about Gordon. His 8.5 yards per target ranked T-24th (with Steve Smith of Carolina) last year among the 70 most targeted receivers (on a per game basis). What is most impressive about that is that Gordon did that on a team that threw the ball more than 10 yards in the air on just 27 percent of their pass attempts in 2012 and averaged just 6.5 yards per pass attempt (27th in NFL). Gordon's 2.0 yards per target differential was the 14th-best figure in the league among the Top 70 receivers. That 2.0 YPTD put him in elite company as others with a YPTD over 2.0 last year included Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Danario Alexander (for Gordon's new OC Norv Turner), Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Lance Moore, Malcom Floyd (also for Norv), T.Y. Hilton and Dez Bryant. Gordon was the only receiver other than Cecil Shorts in the top 14 of YPTD who was not in an upper echelon passing game like Detroit, Denver, New Orleans, Green Bay, Indianapolis or Houston (you could argue Johnson on his own is elite).
With an increased emphasis on down-the-field throwing from Norv (averaged over 40 percent of passes going at least 10 yards in the air over the last five years), we can expect Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden to have an increased yards per attempt in 2013. Given Gordon's already impressive YPTD, he should approach the 17 yards per catch and 10 yards per target historically enjoyed by Turner's top receiver over the last five years. In fact, Turner is the only play caller in the NFL that the 17/10 ratio has been true for his top receiver in each of the last five seasons:
Observing Browns camp as I have much of this month, it is clear that Gordon is far and away the top target in the passing game for Weeden and has the ability to become dominant like an Andre Johnson or Brandon Marshall. I am not saying he will produce like them anytime soon, but Gordon still has plenty of upside. Let's say Gordon sees an uptick to 8.0 targets per game, which is not unrealistic at all in this offense. Even with his two-game suspension, Gordon could produce the following stat line: 112 targets, 59 receptions, 1,120 yards and seven scores, which could be the tip of the iceberg if (and yes, it is a big if) Weeden can hold up his end of the bargain. After all, Philip Rivers had his worst year ever and Danario Alexander had never produced before being signed off the street last year, and look at the success they had behind a terrible offensive line.
Finally, there is one more factor to consider with Gordon for 2013: Turner will use him in the slot a lot to generate favorable matchups. I have seen this every single day in training camp and it should help Gordon improve on his 52 percent catch rate. He is relatively unstoppable out of the free release that the slot provides and I think it will make Gordon a more dominant factor in terms of red zone scoring and overall efficiency. Keep in mind, in Vincent Jackson's last three full seasons with Norv, he was lined up in the slot on over 30 percent of his routes. On those routes Jackson enjoyed a 70 percent catch rate an scored eight times while averaging nearly 14 yards per target!
Last year, Gordon lined up in the slot on just 10 percent of his plays, which was criminal. However, he was a beast when he did, which bodes well for 2013. Working out of the slot in 2012, Gordon caught 75 percent of his targets, averaged a league high 16.9 yards per target and scored two of his five touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus. It should also be noted that Gordon also led the NFL in yards per slot route run at 4.57, better than Calvin Johnson and Michael Crabtree, who were second and third.
Gordon was incredibly efficient and dynamic in his rookie year despite not playing any football in 2011 and being held back by one of the least aggressive passing attacks in football. He possesses the physical tools to be dominant both on the outside and in the slot, making him a matchup nightmare when smartly moved around. With proper utilization, Gordon has the tools to become an elite receiver who can produce 1,300 yards and 8-10 TDs per year (perhaps higher). The two game suspension will just depress Gordon's price tag on Draft Day (current ADP 41st among receivers), which is great news for you. Without a suspension, he would have been in my Top 24 this year, so I really do think highly of his talent and his opportunity. He has a ton of upside and I expect Gordon to become a household name in Fantasy, so you can steal him as your No. 4 receiver and reap the rewards starting in Week 3.
Giovani Bernard is the star of the Cincy backfield
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still in Cincy, but he is a plodding back who is worse at the goal line than he should be. He does not fit the up-tempo style that the Bengals want to run in 2013 and while he will still have some Fantasy value, he is not the Bengals running back I want this year.
The man I have my eye on is Giovanni Bernard. Bernard will open the year in a 50/50 split with Green-Ellis in terms of carries while handling the vast majority of receiving duties, but to my eye it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when he really takes over. More than a few people I respect have compared Bernard to my man Brian Westbrook and we all know what B-West was able to do for your Fantasy Football teams. Bernard is big enough to handle the rigors of a full time workload and possesses elite speed and cutting ability. He averaged a very healthy 5.9 yards per carry at Carolina last year and will be a massive upgrade over Green-Ellis, who has been held under 4.0 yards per carry in each of his last two seasons.
Bernard also brings an electric dimension out of the backfield to the Cincy passing game, something that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden noted has been lacking in recent years when he talked to our own Downtown Dave Richard: "That's probably the one thing, if you point your finger at what we've been lacking, is maybe somebody to make people miss at the second level as far as catching the ball out of the backfield. We think Gio can bring that dimension to the offense," Gruden said. "Gio's a smart kid, he's picked up the offense very well. He can do a lot of different things ... and if he catches the ball in the flat with room to run he is very, very dangerous."
It will not take long for the coaches in Cincinnati to figure out that they are a more dangerous, more diverse and more potent offense with Bernard on the field than they are with the Law Firm. After all, they brought in another stud on offense in rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, so they intend to play a lot of two tight end sets. That formation is very versatile and will allow the Bengals to attack opposing defenses in a multitude of ways that are very running back friendly in terms of both running and receiving (a La the Patriots).
Bernard is a great flex (ADP 30th running back) to snag on Draft Day and has upside well beyond that if he ascends to the primary ball-carrying role early in the year.
Quick hit sleeper: Bernard Pierce
Pierce was extremely impressive as a rookie as he punished would-be tacklers en route to 532 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. Once Jim Caldwell took over as the play caller in Baltimore, Pierce's role grew and he responded with some great games down the stretch.
In the six games with Caldwell as the team's offensive coordinator last year, Pierce ran the ball 75 times for 414 yards (5.5 yards per carry). Taken over 16 games, Pierce would have run the ball 200 times for 1,104 yards. Now, I don't expect that, and some of the workload was inflated because Ray Rice only took three carries in Week 17 (Pierce saw a season-high 22).
I do want to point out that Pierce still took 9.75 carries per game during the playoffs and ran for 204 yards (again over 5.0 yards per carry). That gives him 160-carry and 800-yard potential right out of the gate this year, because he will receive 10-plus touches per game in 2013. The Ravens will have to lean on their ground game following the shakeup among their pass catchers and I think we will see both Rice and Pierce on the field together a lot. Rice can motion into the slot creating a mismatch for the offense and giving Baltimore an awesome run or pass option out of the formation.
Pierce is one of the few handcuffs who would immediately step in and offer legit No. 1 running back potential. He is a must have if you draft Rice, but even if you don't he is one of the top No. 4 runners to target on Draft Day. Pierce has tremendous upside if Rice were to get hurt and can contribute decent totals as a flex even if Rice is healthy.
The secret is out: Jordan Cameron
For a little while now, I have had Jordan Cameron ranked significantly higher than most people because I had the benefit of watching him every day at Browns camp.
The guy is an unbelievable athlete and should thrive in an offense run by Norv Turner and Rod Chudzinski that heavily features the tight end in the passing game (Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow and Greg Olsen all have had career years in this offense). In each of Chud's seasons calling the plays and each of the last five years for Turner in San Diego, their tight ends have ranked in the Top 5 in the NFL in terms of slot routes run, slot targets and Fantasy points from the slot. Cameron is a natural route runner with great hops (check this out) and has been a star in Browns camp, dominating all over the field, including the red zone. This was going to be my little secret until Cameron put his talents on full display in his second preseason game, catching three passes for 42 yards and two scores.
I have been saying he has Top 8 potential at the tight end position and I fully believe it. Cameron is in my Top 12 now and is my favorite wait-and-steal tight end for 2013.
I won't cry for Joe Flacco since he just won a Super Bowl and got paid big, big bucks, but man can he get someone to throw to in B-More? Anquan Boldin was traded this offseason and Dennis Pitta is out for the year with an injury. That means two of Flacco's top three targets are gone from a year ago, along with 126 catches, 1,590 yards and 11 of his 22 touchdown passes. Pitta and Boldin were also the go-to guys for Flacco on third down and in the red zone, where Pitta especially thrived, scoring 10 times in his last 20 games (including the playoffs).
The replacements for Boldin and Pitta are the trio of Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson (who is already hurt himself). The first two have not reached 550 receiving yards in a season since 2009 and are 36 and 34 years old respectively. Dickson has never produced 550 yards in a single season and catches just over 50 percent of his targets, a massive dropoff from the sure-handed Pitta, who brought in 65 percent last year.
Flacco is a legit quarterback who throws one of the finer deep balls in the NFL, but unlike Tom Brady, I don't think he can make a lot of lemonade from these old lemons. Fantasy Football is all about the numbers and when you consider Flacco has never finished in the Top 12 at his position (even with Pitta and Boldin), you'd have to be whacko to draft him.
Gresham peaked last year with 64 catches for 737 yards and six scores, finishing as the 11th-ranked Fantasy tight end. That was the first time Gresham finished in the Top 12 for a season, but it should be noted that he was a Top 12 tight end in only six weeks.
That will be as good as it gets for Gresham now that Tyler Eifert is in town. Eifert is vastly superior as an athlete and a pass catcher and I think he will be the one to lead the Bengals tight ends in Fantasy points when it is all said and done, which is why I like him as a sleeper this year. On Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, Geoff Hobson, who is the website editor for Bengals.com, thinks Eifert will catch 60 passes this year, which means a big dropoff in numbers for Gresham, if the rookie even comes close to that.
Keep in mind that even with no one else to take targets away at tight end, Gresham has never been a Fantasy stud and boasts career averages of just 10.5 yards per catch and 6.4 yards per target. The Bengals staff has already been raving about Eifert and I think Gresham will see a decrease in his targets, rendering him a bye week fill-in starter at best.
Don't be surprised when they breakout: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati's DST